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Transition Through Talent – From Burma to America

Posted on January 26th, 2012.

Childhood in Burma

Mr. Pray Reh started his story stating that when he was born, his parents named him Win Lay. The name was changed however, because he was a very sick child and according to his native Burmese culture persistent illness in an infant may indicate that the child does not like his or her name.

Back in Burma Mr. Pray started to work across the border to Thailand in order to help his family. This involved a week’s journey across the border on foot from the age of 15 years on. He soon sparked the attention of the local authorities. The resulting constant harassment from the Burmese government soon forced him to leave his home and settle in an IDP camp near the Thai border, where he was reunited with his married sister and her family.

As the only boy among six children, in between business activities Mr. Pray also worked on a farm in order to supply his entire family with food. The Burmese militia caught him at least five times on their way to attacks. Capturing the strongest members of families living in this area and forcing them to carry their loads was a common but feared procedure. Mr. Pray ended up doing this from an early age on and as a result, his family grew increasingly concerned for his safety.


Mr. Pray Finds His Talent

While in the camp, Mr. Pray was working as a clerk for an organization which was translating the Bible to his local language. He also learned how to use a video recorder and became involved in recording Bible play.

At the same time, an English teacher from Britain, who eventually married his best friend, taught Mr. Pray how to read guitar notes and so he started practicing. He quickly became better at it. Soon, he played music for the community and started writing his own songs. When he recorded his first album, which he based on his own unsettling life story, his fame quickly spread throughout the community and he started looking for opportunities to record additional songs. This marked the birth of the first ever recorded Karenni music album. Looking back at this time now, he claims that he will forever cherish it.




Developing a Professional Career

Very soon, it also became clear to the IOM that Mr. Pray’s talent would prove useful in order to spread information across the refugee community. Initially, most members of the refugee population were reluctant to the idea of moving to the United States. Through Mr. Pray’s music however, they found a way to initiate some appeal to this thought.

Just like the IOM, the organization he worked for recognized his musical talent and so they assisted him in buying music equipment and setting it up in his office. He was also given the opportunity to teach music in a school within the camp for a year.



Life in the United States

Pray does not know the exact time, but he believes that at an age somewhere in his mid-twenties he met a girl that he would eventually marry. On March 10th 2009, the couple entered the United States with their two children.

In the U.S. Mr. Pray found it difficult to adapt and find work, but in the community church his musical talent was immediately put to use when the church administration asked him to participate in the music ministry. He played for church services and taught the ensemble how to play the guitar. Those activities kept him busy and most importantly, it inspired him to start a recording studio business that would help to promote and keep his cultural music alive.

Further inspiration came through the community members’ demand for his next album production. This way, Mr. Prey became certain of a market for his music.


Working With the Alliance and the IDA Program

Finally, he was referred to the Alliance for African Assistance’s IDA Program and attended their classes with great enthusiasm. He was particularly keen on studying for his financial literacy class. In cooperation with the IDA staff, he researched where to acquire equipment and created a business plan. After his graduation, this helped him to successfully open a bank account and ultimately reach their savings goal.

With the recording equipment that the family acquired using the IDA savings money, Mr. Pray is now working to market his services for community entertainment, recording remixes of his old music, being hired to record community events, composing new songs, and creating a program for the summer youth music lesson. At the moment, he is working full-time while marketing his business.


Future Goals

Eventually, he wants to turn his home-based studio into a big recording facility. He hopes that one day he will be able to fuse his native culture with the American one through a network of music studios of fellow Burmese musicians. He also plans to create an affordable recreational music class for the youth in the community as part of their summer activities.

Today, Mr. Pray’s son is the youngest guitar player in the community. We are hoping that his positive attributes and discipline of learning to play music will inspire his contemporaries to turn to music as their productive past time as well, and that his dream to fuse and preserve their culture in America can become a reality.


January, 2012.  Authors: Alexander Wowra and Becky Odyek

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